Mission impossible 

Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit take flight to Planet Zambi

It's 5 p.m., and Widespread Panic guitarist Jimmy Herring is in Charleston for a concert. And even though the phone has just woken him up, he's still eager to talk when the topic is Col. Bruce Hampton.

"I think of Bruce as our version of Miles Davis," says Herring. "He doesn't look like somebody who would change your musical life, but he does."

That's heavy praise for a musician who has never had a hit record, much less a "Behind the Music" segment devoted to his career. In fact, seldom has a band so commercially obscure exerted more influence than Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit.

You can start with Widespread Panic, whose members first heard Herring when he was with ARU. "These guys really look up to Bruce," Herring says. "That's what makes it so easy to play with them. There are two kinds of musicians: Those who have played with Bruce and the ones who haven't. If you're playing with someone who hasn't played with Bruce, you can really make a fool of yourself if you go out there and start playing like that; they'll look at you like you're completely crazy."

A wild and eccentric cross between Frank Zappa and the Allman Brothers Band, the Aquarium Rescue Unit formed in 1989. The group honed its sound and built its reputation with weekly gigs at long-gone clubs such as the Little Five Points Pub and the Point. At a time when synthesizers and drum machines ruled the record charts, ARU played a rock/jazz/blues/folk hybrid that encouraged its musicians to go on flights of fancy and "jam." It marked the birth of the second generation of jam bands, post-ABB and post-Grateful Dead.

Today, a who's who of jam bands view Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit as their collective godfather. When Widespread Panic's John Bell introduced ARU at a Georgia Theatre concert in Athens two years ago, he referred to Hampton as "my sweet pappy." Phish, the Derek Trucks Band, Blues Traveler and Blueground Undergrass are part of a varied list of groups that cite Hampton and ARU as inspirations.

The ARU is but a chapter in Hampton's long history on the Atlanta music scene. He is a founding member of the Hampton Grease Band, a group that grew out of the hippie scene at Piedmont Park in 1969 and went on to release an album with Columbia Records.

After the Grease band broke up, Hampton recorded a series of esoteric albums that culminated with Arkansas in 1984, a critically acclaimed record that became the blueprint for the ARU sound with such trademark songs as "Basically Frightened" and "Fixin' to Die." He played regular gigs in Little Five Points, and attracted musicians looking to sit in and play his experimental music. Jeff Mosier, the host of a bluegrass show on WRFG-FM (89.3) at the time, remembers walking around L5P with a friend one evening. "I looked up and the marquee said 'Col. Bruce Hampton and the Arkansas Florists,'" says Mosier. "My friend told me he was a legend and I said, 'Well, then, we'd better go in and meet him.' It cost 89 cents."

Mosier was fascinated by Hampton's onstage persona, which featured over-the-top performance art that was partly informed by Hampton's brief excursion into the world of professional wrestling as a manager/wrestler. "I quickly realized it was like a training camp of a cult of something," says Mosier. "I didn't know whether to run or stay. I guess my curiosity kept me there. I was working at a straight job, but I put a pick-up in my banjo and started playing with him. And shortly after that, the Aquarium Rescue Unit was born."

The band's name is inspired by a job Hampton held when he was 19. "I worked for an aquarium repair company in Pensacola [Fla.]," he says. "If an aquarium broke down, we would get the call, all hours. I realized I was working for an aquarium rescue unit."

What band could resist a name like that?

The original members -- Mosier on banjo, Oteil Burbridge on bass, Jeff Sipe (billed as Apt. Q-258) on drums, Charlie Williams on guitar and Matt Mundy on mandolin -- followed Hampton's eccentricities on stage. Burbridge, who is a tall and lean man, would sometimes wear a black miniskirt on stage and he'd use a blown-up balloon to play his bass. Band members would scatter the drum kit all over the stage in midsong, and Sipe would walk from cymbal to kick drum to snare to floor tom without losing the beat. And Hampton -- who played a chazoid, a cross between a mandolin and a guitar -- always seemed to be on loan from some alternative universe.

As Burbridge has said, "It was beyond the cutting edge; it was running people out of the room."

The group even had its own quasi-religion: Zambi-ism. "He told us the first day that you expect pain, misery and conflict," Mosier tells filmmaker Tom Lawson in an upcoming documentary on Hampton called Basically Frightened: The Musical Madness of Col. Bruce Hampton. "And you would think that would be a negative thing, but he kind of set us up to understand the Zambi thing. ... [It's] kind of an understood code for any music that is to be judged by its intention, the intention of the person playing it."

Legend has it that the Aquarium Rescue Unit wouldn't rehearse by playing music -- they'd put down their instruments, then walk up and down a staircase and look at each other, trying to analyze each other's intent. But underneath the strange veneer is a foundation of strong musicianship. "Sometimes it was like a rolling mental hospital," says Mosier, who now leads Blueground Undergrass. "We had no set list. It was very free and very brave. It was a circus, a charming circus. It was also one of the best live bands ever in American music."

Once Herring replaced Charlie Williams as the lead guitarist in 1989 and Count M'Butu joined on percussion, the band began to put more emphasis on its music. Herring, a North Carolina native, studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and the Guitar Institute of Technology in Los Angeles, then moved to Atlanta to teach guitar at the Atlanta Institute of Music. He played in another band with Burbridge and Sipe, and heard about Hampton from them.

Hampton laughs when he recalls Herring's initial days with ARU. "He was 27 and it was his first gig. And he's such a nice guy. All the rest of us were, 'Yeah, let's pick on this nice guy.' It's a wonder he didn't shoot us all. There were five of us in a van, sleeping in the same bed and making $7 a night."

Mosier, who was going broke and had house payments, left the band months before it was signed to Atlanta's Capricorn Records in 1992. The first album was, ingeniously, a live album recorded at the Georgia Theatre. One other studio album was released, but the live album remains the band's trademark record.

The Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere (H.O.R.D.E) Tour in 1992, which Hampton helped spearhead, gave ARU and a slew of other jam bands their first national exposure: Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler, Phish and the Spin Doctors.

"Every band [on the tour] just kind of looked up to them as mentors," John Popper of Blues Traveler says in the documentary. "Whatever the scene we were a part of, that was the connection: that respect for the ARU. Every band would stop what they were doing when the ARU set was on and just check them out."

After a brief heyday, ARU eventually stopped being a working band and Hampton moved to Pensacola. But his influence still spread. Burbridge joined the Allman Brothers Band, where he plays with another Hampton protégé, Derek Trucks. Herring is with Widespread Panic. Sipe is an in-demand drummer. (Burbridge, Herring and Sipe will join in the ARU reunion show at the Variety Playhouse, along with Bobby Lee Rodgers of another Hampton offshoot band, the Codetalkers.)

Hampton's formula is that he surrounds himself with extraordinary musicians, gives them a strong framework with which to play and then sets them loose. "It's all American roots music," says Herring. "The bottom line with Bruce is that it's all about you being yourself. If you can't play like yourself, he's determined to show you how to be you. He'll laugh at you for parodying another guy. He changed me a lot. He gave me the opportunity to explore."

Hampton had the same kind of effect on Mosier. "It was just a magical time," he says. "Great art is created when a tradition is broken. And Bruce is the greatest permission giver. He expects and allows those around him to completely be themselves, without judgment."

Hampton, who suffered a heart attack in the spring and is now back in Atlanta, says he imparts a simple philosophy to the musicians he plays with: It's OK to fail, so long as you're striving for the impossible.

That is the quest every time Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit take the stage. And never has failure seemed so rich and meaningful, not to mention unabashedly fun.


A fund has been set up for Col. Bruce Hampton, who was without health insurance at the time of his heart attack, to help pay for the costs of his medical care. For more information, go to www.colbruce.com.

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